A Primer on National Food Policy in Canada

After years of lobbying by Food Secure Canada and others, the Trudeau government charged the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food with leading the development of A Food Policy for Canada (NFP). Public consultations are underway.

But what does this mean? These Frequently Asked Questions provide links to relevant resources about the antecedents, risks and opportunities, and the process itself. Of course, the really big questions cannot be answered yet. Will a NFP help to steer us in the direction of a healthier and more sustainable food system in which everyone enjoys the right to food? Will it be an instrument that delivers real and sustained change and provides resources to meet the challenges or just another policy on a shelf? Informed participation by the Canadian food movement will make the difference, so read on and get involved.


Why do we need a National Food Policy?

Our food system is disconnected in too many ways:

  • Canada is a leading agricultural exporter, yet four million Canadians struggle to put food on the table. Rates of food insecurity are twice as high among Indigenous populations, and catastrophic levels of hunger prevail in parts of northern Canada. (See: Findings of the mission to Canada by Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food)
  • Increasing amounts of highly processed food in our diets are contributing to the rise in chronic  disease (diabetes, hypertension, obesity), which threatens to overwhelm our health care system, yet food is not getting the attention it deserves in health policy circles.
  • We import 30% of our food despite the fact that we know that growing and processing our own food has many economic benefits, in addition to delivering the fresh, local food Canadians want to eat.
  • Food has been used as an instrument of colonization and oppression in Canada, but it is a potential path to reconciliation if we recognize and support the practice of Indigenous food sovereignty.
  • The price we pay for food ignores its environmental and health externalities -- that hamburger is not actually that cheap -- that we end up paying for down the line.
  • We support small farmers overseas but have a deliberate policy of exclusively encouraging bigger, more industrial farms at home.  

We need a coordinated approach with a food-systems lens (see box below) that connects existing silos. We need to agree across silos and sectors (government, civil society, private sector) upon common goals to achieve a food system that is not only economically viable but also healthy, just and sustainable. That will require recognizing that food is not simply a commodity but a central aspect of our social, cultural, historical, environmental realities, with a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives as citizens and as communities.

A national food policy that is truly “joined-up” would articulate a set of values and principles to guide food policy-making. It would define a mandate and trace an implementation plan, using all the tools that the federal government has at its disposal (policies, legislation, regulations, regulatory protocols and directives, programs, educational mechanisms, trade and investment treaties, intergovernmental agreements, taxes or tax incentives). To be effective, it would also require substantial changes to how and where decisions are made, incorporating more voices than are currently involved.

More resources:  

Watch this 2014 TEDx talk laying out the case for a national food policy


What is systems thinking?

"Food policy development is a complex issue for policy makers because . . . it is about the intersections between a number of policy systems that are historically divided intellectually, constitutionally, and departmentally" (Rod MacRae, A Joined Up Food Policy for Canada). In order to put in place a national food policy that is as sustainable and equitable as it is efficient and competitive, we need a more systems-oriented approach.

We often try to fix societal issues with a ‘’quick fix” that addresses the symptoms of a problem. These solutions can fail to have the impact we hope for as we haven’t accounted for the many forces that feed into a problem or addressed the underlying issues. A systems-thinking approach looks at patterns and feedback loops in order to identify key leverage points for change.

Achieving a sustainable, healthy, just food system will require taking a systems approach of examining the root causes of problems and exploring and experimenting with potential solutions. Rather than trying to fix each problem one by one (say hunger, then health), a systems approach will look at the relationships among the different parts and coordinate interventions on critical leverage points (why chronic disease is higher among low-income groups).  

More resources:  

David Peter Stroh and Kathleen Zurcher, Acting and Thinking Systemically


Why is National Food Policy on the official agenda now?

As part of his commitment to open and accountable government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau published the mandate letters that he sent to each Minister in November 2015, detailing their policy priorities. The mandate letter to Minister Lawrence MacAulay of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) includes this commitment :

Food Secure Canada wrote an open letter to Minister MacAulay calling for an inclusive, whole-of-government approach to developing the policy.

More resources:

Food Policy on the new Federal Government Agenda




What has the government decided already and what happens next?

The government’s A Food Policy for Canada is being developed around four pillars: Food Security, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Growth of the Agriculture and Food Sector.

While AAFC is the lead Department, up to 12 other departments are engaged on the file, and there are many related mandates, such the revision of Canada’s Food Guide, the new Agricultural Policy Framework and Nutrition North, which are led by other departments. The challenge is making sure they are working together, rather than each pursuing different ends and responding to different constituencies.  

The timeframe is public consultations held in the summer of 2017 and the launch of the policy in mid-2018.  


Which concrete policy ideas or proposals have already been developed?

Different actors in the the Canadian food system have been calling for a more unified food policy and developing partial or comprehensive platforms. In 2011, FSC published Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada - the result of three years of consultations involving 3,500 people. The menu of workable policies has the concept of food sovereignty at its heart and represents the most comprehensive national food policy document thus far.

During the 2015 federal election, Food Secure Canada’s Eat Think Vote campaign called for a national food policy with a focus on some key issues: healthy school food; affordable food in the North; support for new farmers; and zero hunger in Canada. Sixty-eight events across Canada brought together 164 election candidates and 4,461 participants, with millions reached through radio, television, newspapers and social media coverage. Five of the candidates who attended those events became Cabinet Ministers.

Five Big Ideas for a Better Food System is the proposal from Food Secure Canada for the national food policy. Organisations are being invited to support this platform.

More resources:   

How can I get involved ?

Join Food Secure Canada! We need the active participation of an expanded membership base to get the best national food policy that we can. Through newsletters, webinars and conference calls, members get informed and stay involved.

Visit our food policy Take Action pages for specific ways to get involved. 


Why is the idea of a National Food Policy Council being floated?

One of the specific ideas already being discussed is the creation of a National Food Policy Council as an inclusive, transparent governance instrument that would work to ensure the implementation of the agreed national policy. Other ideas or solutions may well come out of the consultative process.

In the OpEd A National Food Policy Council for Canada, Dr. Rod MacRae explains how Food Policy Councils are already working at municipal and provincial levels across Canada and the rationale for considering a national council as part of the architecture of the forthcoming food policy.

More resources:   

How can a national policy mesh with diverse international, provincial, territorial and municipal approaches?

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges - to get to a cohesive, useful and ambitious national policy, while respecting other jurisdictions and inherently diverse local experiences, needs, and aspirations. Across Canada, there is a patchwork of provincial, territorial, and municipal food policies and strategies. One of Food Secure Canada’s goals will be to showcase municipal and provincial innovations and best practices that can inform the national policy.  

Another goal is to get decisions about food closer to the people who are consuming that food, so there is no question of a one-size-fits-all policy. Rather, we need to foster local innovation and regional dynamism, and maximize job creation, positive health and environmental outcomes. The solutions will differ from one part of the country to the next; however, the overall goals and principles governing this system need to be debated, agreed upon and then implemented.

International trade and investment agreements, as well as Canada’s aid policies, are squarely in the federal remit. Are they contributing to our goals to have a healthier and more sustainable food system where no one goes hungry? 


How does the National Food Policy relate to other governmental promises and consultations?

The primary challenge for the food movement is getting the best joined-up result in the context of the AACF-led process towards a National Food Policy. However, other federal consultations and policy development involving the food system are ongoing.

Among the recent or current consultations concerning various aspects of food policy, here are three with which Food Secure Canada has been actively involved:

Other relevant consultations that are open or planned include:

Taken together, the reviews of these policies can be building blocks of a national food policy, but that requires joined-up vision and a common set of principles and priorities.



Network group: 
- Private group -